It was a bolt out of blue when, in 2017, Mohammad Zahir Uddin learned that he is a fugitive accused in a political case of attempted murder, arson and vandalism. At that time, he was visiting his village home in Noakhali's Basurhat municipality. He had been teaching at a madrasa in the capital's Uttara since 2015 and living with his family there. After reaching Noakhali, he found everyone whispering behind his back.
So, he visited the municipal councillor office to be clear about the matter.
He was told that a few days ago police from the Companiganj Police Station came to his house in search of him for his alleged involvement in the case. The case was filed in 2013 with the Khilgaon Police Station, Dhaka, they said.
The news was devastating for Zahir as he could not convince the local police, his family members and people around him that he had not committed any of the crimes.
"Even though I was innocent, people in the village and my family used to look at me as if I was a terrible criminal. I could not explain that to anyone," Zahir told The Business Standard.
In 2014, the police filed a chargesheet in the court in the case. According to police, they found evidence against Zahir of being involved in the crimes.
However, Zahir started to fight to prove himself innocent. He continued the fight by relentlessly visiting police stations in Dhaka and Noakhali, court, and offices of law enforcement agencies for four long years.
At last, on 9 September 2021, a High Court bench said based on a Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) report that Mohammad Zahir Uddin is not involved in the case. The decision came almost two years after a writ petition was filed in this regard in 2019.
The court said, the real culprit is a person named Modasser Ansari alias Mohaddes, who gave false information on the involvement of Zahir after being arrested in the case. Police accused Zahir without verifying the information.
Charges were framed against Zahir in his absence and the Companiganj police went to his house where they found that he had been wrongly accused.
The legal battle of Zahir
Zahir Uddin's life changed after he came to know about being accused in the case in 2017. He started spending most of his days in the police stations and on the verandas of the court.
"Me and my family were devastated by the news of the case, but I did not lose heart. I had to come to the High Court to prove my innocence. I am lucky that I did not go to jail. There are many instances where innocent people suffer much more," said Zahir.
According to the PBI, the real accused in the case Modasser Ansari alias Mohaddes was arrested by the police. However, he introduced himself as Mohammad Zahir Uddin to the police. He also gave the address and other details of the madrassa teacher.
Khilgaon police delivered the details to Companiganj police without further verification. Police in Noakhali also did not verify the photo of the accused and identified Zahir based on the details provided by Modasser.
"Modasser may have known me and framed me because he knew my name and address. However, he mentioned my mother's name as Golapi Khanam, but in fact my mother's name is Nurjahan Begum," said Zahir.
However, the Companiganj police mentioned Zahir Uddin's mother's name as Nurjahan Begum alias Golapi Khanam.
"Several lawyers advised me to appear in court and apply for bail. However, I did not listen to them. I said I did nothing wrong. Appearing in court and applying for bail mean I am guilty," Zahir said.
"However, in the end, thanks to the sincere efforts of the PBI. If my lawyer and the PBI had not been able to gather true information on the case, I might have been in jail," he added.
Zahir Uddin also alleged that he had to pay bribes to the Companiganj police to avoid harassment and arrest during the four years.
How it was revealed
After the Khilgaon police filed a chargesheet in the case, the court framed charges against Zahir Uddin in 2017 and an arrest warrant was sent to Noakhali. Zaheer filed a writ petition to the High Court after being falsely accused. Following the writ petition, the PBI conducted a thorough investigation into the matter under the direction of the court.
Md Sarwar Jahan, additional superintendent of Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI), told The Business Standard, "I first applied to get the prison record of the accused arrested in 2013. According to the registrar, the height of the accused is about 5 feet 9 inches, brown skin, there's a cut mark on the palm of his left hand and on his nose. His wife's name is Mezbin Sultana. However, Zahir Uddin has a fair complexion, height 5 feet 5 inches, no cut mark. His wife's name is also different."
"We sent the photo obtained from the prison record to the Companiganj Police Station. They confirmed that the person in the picture is Modasser who has been a fugitive after getting out of jail on bail for some time after being arrested in the case of Khilgaon Police Station."
He said that Modasser is also accused in another case filed with Companiganj Police Station.
"Chairman of Shirajpur union Md Nur Nabi Chowdhury and local people also identified the person depicted in the photo as Modasser," said Md Sarwar Jahan.
What is the liability of police
Md Sarwar Jahan said, "I was asked by the High Court to investigate the complainant. It was not my concern whether the police had made any mistake. However, during the investigation, we called the then investigating officer of Khilgaon Police Station SI Mohammad Rafiqul Islam, but he did not come."
The Business Standard contacted with Rafiqul Islam over the matter. He said, "I did not appear as there was no written invitation." However, he also said that he cannot say anything regarding the case as it is very old and there were many accused.
Meanwhile, Md Sarwar Jahan thinks that the photo sent during the arrest warrant and at the time of identification was not clear. He said that in these cases, sending a clear picture and verifying it seriously can prevent any mistake like this.
Former Inspector General of Bangladesh Police Shahidul Haque told The Business Standard, "The police should be more careful in case of mistakes like this. This type of mistake can ruin somebody's life. To avoid this, a separate database server can be set up for criminals."
Shishir Monir, a lawyer who filed the writ petition on behalf of Zahir Uddin, said, "We have informed the High Court about 43 such victims who are accused in different cases by mistake. Although there are liabilities of police for these incidents, it is basically an information error or 'system error'."
"Many developed countries have a database of biometric information for convicts. Because, the names of many people can be similar but their fingerprint and eye iris will never match. In Bangladesh, creation of a biometric database for criminals is necessary to ensure human rights," he added.